The first British Formula One World Champion, Mike Hawthorn has become something of a legend. He loved to drink and carouse. He was known for breaking into song while out with his friends in the pub. A commanding presence he was an athletic 6’2” white-blonde haired man with a huge smile and a big laugh. He lived a fast, short life with more than it’s fair share of tragedy.
Born in Yorkshire, England in 1929 Mike Hawthorn had cars and racing in his blood. His father, Leslie, owned the Tourist Trophy Garage where, among other things, he tuned cars for racing. Mike spent as much of his time at his father’s shop as he could growing up. The older Hawthorn would take his son to Brooklands race track where he would watch the races as his father worked the pits.
Not particularly academic, but very athletic, Mike left school in 1946 at age 17. By the next year he was showing success racing motorcycles. At the urging of his father he began to race cars. By 1951 he was driving in Formula Two races.
In 1952 Mike’s abilities behind the wheel were getting him noticed by all the right people. Mike was racing a Cooper Bristol when Lofty England (head of Jaguar’s racing operations and possessor of one of the world’s great names) came to see him drive. To say Lofty was impressed would be an understatement.
“I saw him drive at Boreham, and it rained like hell in the afternoon. He passed and led Villoresi in a 4.0 litre Ferrari – in the wet – in his little Cooper Bristol. I thought,’this is my boy’. So I rang his father Leslie on Monday morning and told him to bring the lad to Silverstone on Wednesday, which he did. We put him in an upgraded, specially prepared C-type and within five laps he was under the lap record.” –Lofty England
Unfortunately for Lofty, Ferrari had also taken notice of 23-year-old Mike Hawthorn and offered him a contract to race for them in 1953. Mike agreed.
In his early days of racing Mike would wear his everyday clothes–a suit and tie–the epitome of a gentleman racer. Shortly into his career though he opted to change to more standard racing clothes, though he still wore a bow tie. The ever present bow tie lead to his nickname “Le Papillon,” which is French for “the butterfly.”
1954 was a tough year for Mike. He suffered a crash while racing at Syracuse that left him with burns on his arms and legs. Later in the year he would have unsuccessful surgery for a kidney problem that had been plaguing him for a number of years–and was, in fact, the reason that he did not serve in World War II. His father was killed in a car accident the same year.
Then a silver lining to 1954 appeared. Jaguar offered Mike the position of team leader for the 1955 racing season. Mike decided to accept this honor and did not renew with Ferrari.
While racing Jaguar D-Type number 6 in the 1955 Le Mans race Mike would find himself at the center of controversy when he inadvertently cut off another driver while heading into the dangerously narrow pit lane. Jaguar was the first racing team with disc brakes, which were new at the time making Mike’s D-Type slow rapidly as he braked to make the pit lane. The driver of the Austin Healey he had just passed braked hard and swerved to avoid hitting Mike, putting the Healey directly in the path of the traffic coming up from the rear. The Healey was hit hard from behind by Pierre Levegh who had been approaching at approximately 150mph in his Mercedes 300 SLR. Levegh’s Mercedes was launched into the air, showering debris and fire into the grandstands. 85 people were killed and another 120 were injured in what is still considered the worst accident in racing history. Mike was convinced to continue the race, which he won. Many people have accused him of having caused the accident, though he was cleared by the official investigation.
Mike would race for Jaguar again in 1956. By the end of the year Jag decided to end their involvement in auto racing and Mike went to Ferrari. He continued to have a close relationship with Jaguar however, assisting them with testing of new models. At the end of 1957 Jaguar gave him a Mk I sedan with a 3.4 liter engine as a thank you for his successes. Mike’s new Jag wore the number plate VDU 881 (in England the plates go with the car and cars are typically known by their plates). Mike had his mechanics at the Tourist Trophy Garage set about making a number of changes to VDU 881 turning it into a serious road burner. His penchant for speed off the track was well known by those close to him and he was often seen driving his hotted up Jag near the Tourist Trophy Garage, reportedly sometimes racing his friend Rob Walker who had a Mercedes 300 SL.
Mike raced alongside his best friend Peter Collins while at Ferrari. They had known each other for several years but became very close during their time at Ferrari. It was a friendship that held strong despite the competitive nature of Ferrari, where drivers were often pitted against each other in an attempt to ensure a win for the car maker. It was a happy time for Mike and he had great success, winning the Argentinian Grand Prix and clinching the title of World Champion for him in 1958.
Sadly, Peter Collins crashed in front of Mike’s eyes while the two were racing at the German Grand Prix in 1958 and was killed. Mike was devastated by the loss. He finished out the season but immediately after winning the World Championship he announced he would be retiring from auto racing. He had seen too much tragedy during his short time in the sport.
On January 22, 1959 Mike was driving VDU 881 on the Guilford Pass–then a four-lane road–not far from his Tourist Trophy Garage. He was seen by witnesses who stated that he was driving at least 80mph. There is some evidence that he may have been racing his friend Rob Walker, though given his penchant for driving very fast in general it cannot be said for certain. It had rained earlier in the day and the roads were still wet. For reasons that have never been fully explained, on a long right-hand sweeping turn Mike lost control of his car, striking a low concrete post causing the the rear of the car to come around. It was not a correctable slide, even for Mike. He crossed the road, clipped the back of a truck, and then continued off the far side of the road before going hard into a tree. Mike’s Jag was nearly broken in half and he was killed almost instantly. He was 29.
Mike made this short film in 1956. In it he takes us around for one lap of the Le Mans track. (Le Mans is run partially on normal roads which explains why there are people all over the place.) It is a fascinating look at the attitudes of the era–when racing drivers did not wear seat belts and practice laps were taken while the roads were still open–and an opportunity to listen to Mike explain his skill to us in his own voice.